Exploring Time in “Tenet” and “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”

*Spoilers for I’m Thinking of Ending Things

On the first weekend of September, Christopher Nolan’s long-awaited Tenet arrived to challenge the pandemic and (hopefully) save movie theaters. Meanwhile, writer/director Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things arrived on Netflix. Tenet is a sleek, imaginative, action-packed blockbuster thrill ride that has all of Nolan’s quirks: technical perfection, stiff dialogue, ponderings about reality, and Michael Caine. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is equally full of its director’s quirks: a focus on relationships, abstract, melancholy, arthouse. Both films, outside of their auteur-ness, share something in common: they are both about time, and much can be learned by comparing how the two directors approach their exploration of the subject. 

In Tenet, a character ends her explanation about the central premise of the movie (objects moving through time backward) by saying, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” Despite that instruction, Tenet is all about thinking. The entire film is completely plot-driven. Every single line of dialogue is plot-related. Every scene moves forward relentlessly. The momentum of the film is exciting, but there is no room for beauty or feeling. Tenet wants you to think about the possibility of going backward in time and it wants you to experience such a disorienting thrill (sometimes too disorienting, I spent an hour standing outside of the theater after the movie with my companions trying to parse the story out, and I’m still not sure I understand everything). 

Meanwhile, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is all about feeling. There is also a lot of talking, however, it’s less about what is said (which are often long monologues about art) and more about how things are said, or why. By the time the ending rolls around and there’s a ballet dance break and Jesse Plemmons sings an entire song from Oklahoma!, you’re either on board or are probably very annoyed. 

Time is warped in several ways during I’m Thinking of Ending Things. When Lucy (Jessie Buckley) gets to Jake’s (Jesse Plemmons) parents’ house, she and Jake stay the same age, but his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) begin aging backward in forward. Every time Lucy steps into a new room, both parents are at different ages. Later, Lucy notes that instead of people being stationary points that move through time, time moves through people and she watches time move through Jake’s parents. 

The scenes in the car between Jake and Lucy likewise play with continuity and time. Jake calls Lucy by several different names, she talks about being in different occupations, and her story of how she and Jake met changes multiple times. And in the ending sequence, it is revealed that Lucy wasn’t real at all, but that Jake was imagining falling in love. 

Maybe. That might be one possible interpretation. But nothing about I’m Thinking of Ending Things encourages you to “solve” the movie. It is not a logical puzzle, and there’s nothing you gain from being able to pin down the movie’s timeline or narrative tricks. What you need to know about Lucy and Jake, or their feelings and relationship, are all conveyed through the acting and visuals. The confusing, metaphysical nature of the visuals and story are supposed to only teach you one thing about time: it is our absurd enemy. Our perception of time is changed by our emotions, and the only way out is through. 

I’m Thinking of Ending Things treats time as a character within itself, as malleable as any of the other characters. Tenet treats time as a tool to play with. Neither approach- thinking or feeling- are inherently better or worse, of course. Both films have numerous explainer videos and articles on the internet to help people figure the films out, and both films prompt rich discussion through their ambiguous nature. I think, though, that the spectacle of Tenet (the big screen really is the only way to see it) will mean that the film won’t have much longevity. Some of Nolan’s other twisty puzzle-box movies have stood the test of time and remained in the cultural memory- I’m thinking of Inception and Memento– but those had stronger emotional cores than Tenet. Meanwhile, I’m Thinking of Ending Things will probably also be forgotten, but less because of the film itself and more from how few people will see it and how even less will submit themselves to its oddity. Yet I think that if you do give I’m Thinking of Ending Things a chance and embrace it on its own terms, you will find it worthwhile, even if you don’t enjoy it.

-Madeleine D.

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